Deploying the Big Dog

Greg Sargent argues this morning at WaPo’s Plum Line that the new Obama campaign ads featuring former president Bill Clinton represents the long-considered answer to a central and long-discussed question about this election: how to address Obama’s performance on economic policy in the context of creating a sharp contrast with Mitt Romney and the congressional GOP. Here’s Greg’s take:

What we’re seeing here, I believe, is the beginning of the Obama campaign’s pivot to a more concerted effort to draw a contrast between what an Obama second term would look like and what a Romney presidency would look like. And yet, paradoxically, Clinton needs to reach into the distant past to draw this contrast.

In the spot, Clinton focuses on the future and on the past before Obama was president. The contrast it draws is between Clinton and Obama’s approach on the one hand and Bush’s and Romney’s approach on the other. As Steve Kornacki notes, the ad plays the Bush card without saying his name. The ad also draws this contrast without discussing what has happened under Obama. Clinton carefully says Obama has “a plan” and that we “need to keep going with his plan.” This stops just short of saying the recovery is underway, but it hints that we’re moving foward and promises recovery in the future, just as happened under Clinton….

This [approach] is rooted, I believe, in a reading of the electorate by the Obama campaign that has gone underappreciated. The Obama camp makes a distinction between whether voters think Obama has failed, and whether they are merely disappointed that he hasn’t lived up to expectations, but find that understandable given the situation he inherited.

It’s a pretty subtle message to get across in 30 seconds, but I agree Clinton’s the right person to make the argument, since memories of his administration are still reasonably current and if anything increasingly positive. But the advent of Clinton as a straight-on-to-the-camera spokesman in Obama ads is a pretty big deal in and of itself, and potentially more important than the Convention speech he’s already agreed to give. At some point, we need to see Clinton skewering the idea that reintroducing the high-end tax rates of his own presidency would devastate the economy (paired, perhaps, with the notoriously failed predictions of Republicans that tax increases in Clinton’s first budget would cause a deep recession). And most of all, if the Romney/Ryan campaign continues to use Clinton’s past image in its mendacious and racially inflammatory “welfare” ads, nothing would be more effective than using Clinton’s present image and voice in rebutting them, and indeed turning the tables by showing that it’s the GOP that is threatening work-based welfare reform with its systematic attacks on work supports in the federal budget and tax code.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.